Born into privilege and wealth, Amanda Webster is a sixth-generation Australian descended from white settlers and the third generation to grow up in Kalgoorlie. When she started kindergarten, Amanda became friends with Aboriginal children from the nearby Kurrawang Mission. At that time, the lives of the Aboriginal people were controlled by the Chief Protector and his local representatives, one of whom was Webster's grandfather. As a child, Webster had assumed the Mission kids, including Bronwyn, her best friend, were well-cared for orphans.
However, growing awareness in later years forced her to realise that her childhood friends were part of the Stolen Generations.
Webster embarked on a journey to reconnect with her past, on a journey towards the realisation that she, like generations of Australians, grew up with a distorted and idealised version of history. She is forced to confront her racist blunders, her cultural ignorance and her family's secret past.
This a story from Webster's personal journey of reconciliation, the moment when she finally tracks down her childhood best friend, Bronwyn, with the assistance of Gregory Ugle, the older brother of one of the "Mission kids".
A flash of white in the bush caught my eye. I slowed the car and turned onto a track with, as Greg noted, fresh tyre marks. A couple of old caravans, a few cars (old bombs as we would have called them as children) and a humpy of corrugated iron, tarpaulin and branches came into sight. Several wisps of ash-grey smoke spiralled into the bleached blue sky. I parked under a tree and waited in the car, while Greg went to explain me and my purpose. The place felt isolated, about as far from my desk as I could travel in Australia. Despite the sweltering heat, I kept the windows wound up.
Fifty metres away, Greg hung back from a woman, his body language carefully non-aggressive, and I remembered that despite the history Greg shared with Bronwyn, he was a Noongar man on Wongi land. A small brown-skinned boy whizzed past on a bicycle. He threw me a curious glance. I smiled and waved.
Greg started back towards the car. I wondered if my visit was a hard sell, or if Bronwyn was even here. I wound down the window.
‘It’s her. She says she’ll talk.’
I followed his meandering course through the trees to a clearing. Three parked cars defined a rough triangle of land. At two points of the triangle, fires smouldered, giving off the smell of eucalyptus. An old double-bed mattress, covered with worn blankets, lay on the ground next to one of the cars. A woman taller than me lugged camp chairs, setting one alongside the other.
Relief enveloped my palpitating heart at finding you looking as if life had not got the best of you, despite living in poor and difficult circumstances.
The woman turned and looked my way and ah … almost four decades since I’d last seen you, there you were, Bronwyn. Wearing a polo shirt, loose olive-brown track pants of some synthetic fabric, socks and sandshoes and rings and chains, bright gold against your dark skin. Relief enveloped my palpitating heart at finding you looking as if life had not got the best of you, despite living in poor and difficult circumstances.
‘Remember me? Amanda Webster?’ I said.
I wanted to say, remember the sound of two little girls giggling under Galloping Gertie? Remember the smell of the lavender in the flower bed behind the house? The taste of those orange nasturtium flowers by the pathway to the front door? I wanted to say that all these years I’d preserved memories of you as carefully as if they were wrapped in tissue and stored in a cedar chest, a sprinkle of naphthalene to keep the moths at bay. But I didn’t. In case you didn’t remember.
What came next is etched into my memory as a pivotal moment of my adult life. I’ve been carrying your memory for so long, you see, and meeting up with you again would impact my priorities. You gave me another look, longer this time. Nodded. Your face broke into a broad grin, and you said, ‘I remember, Mandy. I remember.’ You pointed at the chairs. Invited me to sit. I did.
If you are indeed reading this book, Bronwyn, you’ll know by now I thought you were an orphan. I pictured you sharing midnight feasts with the other girls. I imagined life at Kurrawang as one long, fun-filled camp, like the Fresh Air League in Esperance, where I stayed for a week or two one year.
The story you told me in the bush camp would have been beyond my comprehension as a child. The way your father took you and your siblings from your mother when you were living in Kalgoorlie because she was drinking, and moved you to Cue, north of Perth. The way Native Welfare removed you from your father after your mother complained, but instead of returning you to your mother, placed you in different hostels for a while and then in Kurrawang. You and your four sisters and, later, Arthur. None of you knew it then, but you had been made state wards.
You were a child-mother. And me? I was allowed to be a child.
From what you told me, I now know that the Mission was nothing like the Fresh Air League. Not yet a teenager, you had to mother your younger sisters. You had to change their nappies and, early each day, you woke one sister, who wet the bed, to allow her a hot shower before the missionaries noticed and punished her with a cold shower, even in winter. You were a child-mother. And me? I was allowed to be a child, dressing my doll Valerie in her bridal clothes while I dreamt a white wedding for myself.
At one point, you stopped speaking. Frowned and seemed lost in thought. Then you glanced around. Pointed to some yellow flowers, brazen against the orangey-red dirt. Told me they reminded you of the time you ran away at 16 and walked into town. From there, for a couple of years, you travelled through the desert, up into the Northern Territory and down to Adelaide. Those were the years I was travelling by bus back and forth from the private girls’ school I attended. Eventually you returned to Kalgoorlie. As most people from the Goldfields do. The lure of the past as strong as the lure of gold for the early prospectors.
After maturing early, you had a baby at 18, you said. Gave it to a relative. The matter-of-fact way you delivered this news shocked me a little, but who knows what pain lay beneath the surface of your casual words. You told me about falling in love with Ken Smith in 1975, and running away with him. And about the 27-year partnership that ensued, during which you bore another nine children. Quite a feat in the eyes of a mother of three, especially as you and Ken managed an Aboriginal community up north at the time, the prerequisite skills all self-taught. Enjoyable work, you said, but it ended badly. So you returned to Kalgoorlie.
Oh Bronwyn, as a child, I had no idea what you were going through. Since then, in many ways the differences between our lives have increased. Other things we have in common. We both feel a mother’s love for our children, for example. But much of your life is beyond my understanding. I can begin to guess at your grief at losing a child. But only begin. While grief is grief, I have the resources to do whatever I can to cushion my sadnesses.
Living in the bush suits you, you claimed, with more than a hint of defiance in your voice. The peace, the way nobody bothers you. It sounded as if you were making the most of your circumstances, a skill life has probably taught you. But it can’t be easy without whitegoods, a soft bed and a hot shower.
Living in the bush suits you, you claimed, with more than a hint of defiance in your voice.
While at your camp, your grandson, who looked younger than the boy on the bike, sidled up and wordlessly handed you a tin of spaghetti to open. You pulled the metal ring and tossed the lid behind you into a bush. This might sound judgemental, but I’d expected you’d show more care for the land. (‘You white people and your stereotypes,’ I can imagine you saying.) After spending more time than is probably warranted thinking about it, I’ve come to realise you had no rubbish collection service. While you could still have collected the rubbish yourself, I guess you had other priorities. Like how to put food on a non-existent table without a kitchen, without a fridge, without a stove. And with too many troubles on your plate. Not to forget that white people litter too. And the carbon print from my big toe alone probably exceeds yours altogether. Of course, the mines, owned and largely operated by white people, cause far more damage to the environment than all the litter in Kalgoorlie.
The beat of loud music reached your camp before the engine noise. This part of the story might well be too routine for you to remember. A white 4WD appeared – the one I’d seen at the Mission. It was your son, bringing hamburgers to his sisters. The juxtaposition looked strange to me – the evident poverty, the expensive car, the bush camp, the fast food. But I see now that in the absence of a kitchen, fast food comes into its own. And expensive cars, I would later discover, compensate poorly for some losses. When your son left, you suddenly looked at your watch. Sat up. Said, ‘You gotta drive me to the jail now, Mandy. I gotta visit my kids.’
Just like that, as if you were asking me to drop you at the shopping centre. Matter-of-fact, like when you described the deaths of your son and your partner. As if you accepted these facts as your lot in life. And perhaps your ability to accept these facts is an invisible mark the Mission has left on you.
It took me a moment to find my voice and agree.
You asked me to return the next day. I again agreed. We embraced, and then I drove to the jail, with Greg in the passenger seat beside me and you in the back.
First Contact (season 2) airs on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm on SBS. Across 28 Days, six well-known Aussies take an epic journey into Aboriginal Australia. Watch the trailer here, and catch-up on episodes after the program airs via SBS On Demand here.